Book Review: Russia’s Futures

I’ve been accused of being an extreme centrist. Or was it a centrist extremist? I can’t exactly remember. But as far as I could make out, the point of the accusation was that this blog is just too balanced, that I bend over so far backwards in my attempts to be even that all I ever say is ‘on the one hand, on the other hand’, relentlessly occupying the middle ground, and refusing to take a firm stand on anything. Russia isn’t the evil dictatorship it’s made out to be, but it’s not all warm hugs and cuddles either. The war in Ukraine isn’t just Russian aggression, it’s a civil war, but the Russians are in it up to their necks regardless. That sort of thing.

The same accusation might plausibly also be laid against Richard Sakwa of the University of Kent in the UK. Sakwa is one of the most prominent Russia experts in the English-speaking world, being the author of numerous books on Russian politics, including astandard undergraduate textbook on the subject. I suspect that in general Sakwa’s politics are a little to the left of mine, but when it comes to things Russian I find that I agree with him 99% of the time. I was rather pleased, therefore, when his latest book Russia’s Futures arrived unprompted in my mailbox recently. I immediately buckled down to reading it, and I wasn’t disappointed.


Russia’s Futures provides readers with a broad survey of the Russian political and economic systems, Russia’s place in the world, the main ideological currents in Russian society, and the like. It’s clearly aimed at a general rather than a specialist audience. As such, it’s more a summary of what Sakwa has concluded from his 30 years of professional studies than a piece of original academic research. Footnotes citing serious academic articles are interspersed with occasional references to the likes of Paul Goble and Russia Insider (there’s balance for you!). Looking at the footnotes, I suspect the influence of Johnson’s Russia List. But Sakwa can be forgiven one or two eccentric references. He knows his stuff, and the result is an impressively even-handed discussion of Russia’s present situation and likely future development.

Sakwa starts out by telling us that Russia’s ‘reality is multi-planed, plural and diverse’. Readers should therefore ‘be aware of the undoubted negative features of contemporary Russia, while remaining alive to how the system has developed in recent years and delivered enormous public goods.’ This pretty much sets the tone for the extremist centrism (or is centrist extremism?) which follows.

Analyzing the Russian political system, Sakwa lays out the theory he has developed elsewhere that Russia has a ‘dual state’. On the one hand, there is the constitutional system; on the other hand, there is the ‘administrative regime’ which is ‘not effectively constrained’ by the former. The constitutional order matters and prevents the system from descending into a dictatorship. But constitutionalism is undermined by a lack of rule of law, corruption, nepotism, and so on. Consequently, Russia is ‘far more than a “kleptocracy” or a personalized autocracy, yet rather less than a functioning, accountable and competitive democracy.’

As for Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin, he is a ‘conservative centrist’, as is his regime. Sakwa informs us that, ‘Putin’s statecraft is his ability to draw strength from all of the epistemic blocs but to become dependent on none … incompatible groups and ideas are kept in permanent balance.’ Putin, says Sakwa, ‘acts as the arbiter between elite groups and institutions … Each can participate in policy making and the political process in general, but none can capture the state.’ Sakwa doesn’t use the word ‘corporatist’, but it strikes me that this might be a good way of describing this system. The state has ways of involving all interested parties in the decision making process. Everybody gets a chance to influence government. But it’s done through the office of the presidency, and through extra-constitutional mechanisms, rather than through elected representatives. As Sakwa puts it, ‘Diverse non-constitutional bodies such as the Civic Chamber … act to aggregate policy communities and express societal concerns, but without the overt politicization which is characteristic of parliamentary politics. The presidency is thereby shielded from capture by any one group or faction in society, but works to ensure that none is entirely excluded.’

The result is not entirely undemocratic. As Sakwa says, ‘the Putin system is a fair reflection of the society at large.’ But Sakwa considers this system unsustainable and merely a ‘breathing space’ which ‘will sooner or later give way to something else.’ The system results in centrist policies which balance all the interests within society, but the problem with this centrism is that it ‘thwarts a clear plan for the future … the outcome is stasis’, preventing the kind of structural reforms which Sakwa considers necessary for Russia’s development, especially in the economic sphere.

The Russian economy, Sakwa claims, contains a ‘contradictory amalgam’ of elements of liberalization and state-led economic mobilization. He notes numerous economic achievements, and comments that ‘the Putin system of mutual responsibility  has ensured that a good quotient of the rents are directed to socially useful purposes.’ But, as if once again to show his sense of balance, he points also to considerable deficiencies, such as poor protection of property rights and a lack of investment in education and health care. ‘Russia today has clear symptoms of economic dysfunction that can only be resolved through systemic reform.’ Sakwa concludes.

Sakwa’s even-handedness is somewhat less evident in his discussion of Russian foreign policy, though even here he avoids extremes. He is clearly sympathetic to the Russian claim that current East-West tensions are largely the fault of the West. He describes the prevailing Russian foreign policy ideology as ‘liberal statism’ – liberal in the sense of being committed to the basic principles and institutions of the ‘liberal international order’, such as the United Nations, the WTO, international law, and so on; but statist in the sense of emphasizing state sovereignty. According to Sakwa, ‘The cardinal postulate of Russia’s neo-revisionism is commitment to the norms of international society vertically, but resistance to the (hegemonic) practices of the US-led order horizontally.’ In this way, Russia challenges US leadership of the international order, but not the order itself.

Sakwa places all of this within the theoretical framework of ‘neo-modernization’. Classical modernization theory equated modernization with Westernization, and argued that being modern meant adopting Western models of liberalism and democracy. According to Sakwa, ‘The idea of “neo-modernization” challenges classical views while asserting that modernization does  have certain universal features, but that these have to be combined with specific national cultural and economic traditions.. … countries can be modern in different ways.’ Russia’s problem, says Sakwa, is that it has been consistently ‘mismodernized’. By contrast, Japan is an example of a country which has managed to modernize while avoiding becoming Westernized. ‘It is this combination that continues to elude Russia’, says Sakwa.

This makes sense, but whereas I agree almost totally with everything Sakwa says, at this point I do find myself having some problems with his thesis. For what is the peculiarly Russian model of modernity which is on offer? Sakwa himself notes that, ‘the model of modernity in Russia today is closer to that of the West than ever before, and there are no fundamental ideological differences.’ Discussing the idea that Russia’s political system is unstable because it is neither one thing nor the other – neither democracy nor authoritarian – Sakwa strongly suggests that moving in the direction of the former is desirable. Likewise, his call for ‘structural economic reform’ strikes me also as a demand for Russia to become more Western. In short, Russia’s ‘neo-modernization’ ends up looking rather like Westernization after all.

At one point Sakwa mentions the Russian conservative philosopher Boris Mezhuev as an example of someone proposing the neo-modernization he has in mind. I recall a conference that Sakwa, Mezhuev and I attended in Moscow a couple of years ago. At this, I pointed out to Mezhuev that I couldn’t tell what it was he that he was proposing for Russia which was in any way different from the Western liberalism he was criticzing. How did his vision of democracy differ from that of Western democracy? As I recall, he failed to provide an answer. And here’s the problem – pushed to say what the unique Russian path to modernity consists of, many of its proponents can’t actually say. They don’t like Westernization, but when pressed they don’t have a concrete alternative to offer.

In the end, therefore, I don’t find the neo-modernization thesis particularly convincing. At heart, I guess, I really am a Francis Fukayama ‘End of History’ type of Western liberal after all. Despite this, however, I strongly recommend Russia’s Futures. There are so many books out there portraying Russia in an absurdly negative light, that it’s deeply refreshing to come across something which is extremist only in its sense of balance. Of course, that conclusion reflects my own bias – I like the book in large part because I agree with it. Extreme Russophobes and extreme Russophiles will no doubt hate it (especially the former, I suspect). But if you have an open mind and you’re looking for a readable introduction to Russian politics, Russia’s place in the world, and Russia’s possible futures, this is as good as you can currently find.

21 thoughts on “Book Review: Russia’s Futures”

  1. I’m not that knowledgeable in the history of Japanese or Korean modernisation, but from what I learned by listening to talks of Andrei Lankov, quite renowned Koreanologist (now at Kookmin University in Seoul), the (Southern) Korean modernisation definitely had in mind rapid industrialisation and economic growth so as to get developed economies ‘like in the West’, but definitely not by adhering to the ideas of liberal democracy (the Southern Korean transition to liberal democracy didn’t happen until late 80s) nor e.g. free trade (to protect the automobile industry, they severely taxated car imports).
    Now, I’m not sure whether, if asked in the 60s, Southern Koreans could at all formulate a definite ‘Korean model of modernisation’, but their ‘model of modernity’ back then was definitely the Western one. Given that, I’m not sure whether they couldn’t have been asked ‘For what is the peculiarly Korean model of modernity which is on offer?’ by somebody like you back then – without an evident answer. And yet a posteriori we have to admit that there was one.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. What is this “modernity” you speak of?

    The system results in centrist policies which balance all the interests within society, but the problem with this centrism is that it ‘thwarts a clear plan for the future … the outcome is stasis’, preventing the kind of structural reforms which Sakwa considers necessary for Russia’s development, especially in the economic sphere.

    Isn’t it possible, and in fact preferable, that when most of those ‘interests within society’ start demanding these ‘structural reforms’, then they will be initiated, in accordance with the “permanent balance” model you described?

    Or having a gang of technocratic visionaries a-la Yegor Gaidar&Co in control is a must?


  3. You were referred to as a moderate extremist:

    You do take definitive stands like what you’ve said about The Saker and Russia Insider – comments that are well accepted in the North American political journalism establishment. Notwithstanding, you IMO fall short in some instances, as evidenced by some of what you promote and don’t promote at your blog – inclusive of not going after enough the likes of Julia Ioffe, while uncritically praising JRL, which has a phony, crony, baloney aspect.

    I like Richard Sakwa, in part for referencing one of the otherwise truly censored, with something valid to say:

    Do you actually think that Sakwa is more slanted than Leonid Bershidsky?


  4. It strikes me that a lot of the debates over single vs. multiple modernization conflate two separate questions, namely the end goal and the route used to get there. I think there’s a useful analogy to be drawn with discussion in the old Soviet bloc of different “roads to socialism” vs. different “socialisms”. I think a lot of people (and I suspect both Sakwa and Mezhuev would fall into this category) say that they advocate a sort of “modernization without Westernization”, but what they’re really advocating is the more limited right of Russia and other non-Western countries to arrive at Western modernity in their own time, at their own pace and with their own choice of intermediate steps.

    I think there’s a further useful distinction to be drawn between Western forms and Western content. Even when a given figure is genuinely pushing for non-Western modernization, they may only be pushing for non-Western content, while being satisfied with Western forms. You can believe in electoral democracy, rule of law, separation of powers, etc. but disagree with the specific policies that these have produced in the countries of the West. My own suspicion is that in the Russian case specifically (at least in terms of politics; culture is another matter), the issue isn’t really “Westernization” at all; it’s rather issues with the specific way Western politics have gone in the last few decades.

    We’re getting into a strange situation where the most vigorous elements in Poland (who have considerable emotional investment in being “Western”) and Russia (who have considerable emotional investment in being “non-Western”) have far more in common with each other than either do with the countries of Western Europe and North America. The critical issue isn’t so much whether you can have modernity without Westernization, but rather whether you can have political and economic modernity without also having the whole suite of social liberal policies that have become universal in Western countries in the 21st century.

    Liked by 1 person

      1. GWOT have helped triggered this?

        Oh dear, if this happens in my present job, I am doomed.
        GWOT have helped to trigger this.

        I loved admitted the juxtaposition of *philes vs *phobes in Paul’s article, reminded me of my problems when I entered the US political scene at the time. …

        Now shutting up for good for two weeks at least.


    1. appreciated, could we reduce this in economic language to the following: One size may not fit all?

      the whole suite of social liberal policies that have become universal in Western countries in the 21st century.

      How naive or misguided do you consider the following question: To what extend could the GWOT have helped triggered this? To this nitwit it feels it might have have been one cog in the driving wheel? …

      If you claim to bring-freedom-to the-world, could this not result in parallel inner dynamics. Vaguely like: what about our respective freedom? Besides the respective necessary *-phobias?

      Or was there an important process I ignored, let’s say from the time the US-Culture-Warriors* raised their warning voices considering the evil liberals first? Put another way, they always were right? When, was that, in the 80s?

      * Ok, too lazy to find a more fitting term. But there can be no doubt that the US rise of the counter-revolutionaries made those semi-literary ghost surface: The Inner Enemy number one: The Cultural Marxist.

      According to Sakwa, ‘The cardinal postulate of Russia’s neo-revisionism is commitment to the norms of international society vertically, but resistance to the (hegemonic) practices of the US-led order horizontally.’ In this way, Russia challenges US leadership of the international order, but not the order itself.

      I am mentally liberal enough to appreciate Russia’s return to World Politics. … if only as balancing factor, that is.

      Still, these lines of my mad poet friend from Birmingham, John Williams, have remained on my mind:
      If the vertical meets the horizontal,
      they sometimes form a cross.


      1. semi-literary ghost surface: The Inner Enemy number one: The Cultural Marxist.
        Within my limited attention space, resurface with a vengeance.


  5. My own take on Russias system:

    I actually think Sakwas description is still a bit too simplistic.

    The lines between “official” and “unofficial” function are not just blurry, frequently elements from the official parts become part of the unofficial sphere and vice versa. Secondly, plenty of Russian influencers wear multiple hats at the same time.

    I believe that Russia needs the following characteristics to keep operating as a Great power:

    1: Civic rather then ethnic nationalism. It currently does quite well there in my impression. Russians are actually rather quick to accept foreigners who show even just eagerness to learn the Russian cultural canon. (I am German, any Russian can recognice me for a German as soon as I speak Russian, I never ever had a single problem being German in Russia and had only one case out of hundreds were I ran into a wall, but that guy was a hardcore kreakl) I am not a “but my diversity” guy, however, very obviously non ethnic Russians (or even Slavs) like Shoigu can rise to the very highest positions, and given Shoigus considerable skills I think most Russophiles agree that this is a good thing.

    2: Reasonably permissive barriers to entry to the elite, as well as mechanisms for training Russian future leadership in Russia. I actually think that this will be an issue. A couple of years down the line, the heirs to the current crop of the Elite, who are frequently educated in the west, will like clash a far bit with technocratic Elites who were educated and raised in Russia and kept the country running. I do not think that a country that does not educate its own future leadership will have much of a claim to great power status.

    3: Keeping control of Russias natural resources while utilizing the revenues from these resources to improve Russian education, health care and infrastructure.

    4: Avoiding major wars. This may well require entering minor wars, and will very likely require a sufficiently deterrent military posture.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. “Western liberal”?- sometimes I think this is little more than an idea in the mind of God. It seems to me that there is quite a bit to be optimistic about Russia’s development provided that its economy grows sufficiently to markedly lift the living standards of its citizens. As W C Fields observed it’s a tough world out there (and a man’s lucky to get out of it alive). The final five years of Putin’s reign will be very interesting.


  7. Sakwa might find his book obsolete pretty soon. My Telegram feed is filled with discussions about the current “governorfall” and what does it mean, and a prominent opinion is that the governance style is changing, first in regions, but likely to spread to federal level if it proves efficient by the time Putin leaves office. Perhaps they are reading too much into it, but the style they are talking about is rather appealing (I won’t attempt to summarize it here though).


      1. Several regional governors (I heard the number six) are going to be relieved of their positions soon. The number and timeframe suggests that it’s a matter of policy rather than punishment (though that too, of course. Putin is not gonna fire a governor who does his job well). Although governors are elected, for the interim period between previous one quitting and new one elected the pred=sidental appointee gets all powers, which he can use to prepare for elections, and I don’t mean it in a negative sense – rather, in that time the “varyag” from Moscow gets to show what he can do instead of simply riding on Putin’s popularity). The political commenters build their analysis on inside information of who is gonna take the position – younger, experienced in management and HR, not shying from meeting the people etc – to draw a rather interesting vision. But again, although it’s not the only thing they are drawing from, they can easily be reading to much into it.


      2. ” My Telegram feed is filled with discussions about the current “governorfall””

        Wow! Hyperactive underaged[*] morons on TG are the NextGen of data collaboration after Omniscient Taxi Drivers ™ and Courtyard Gossiping Grannies ™. I guess everyone should take their word for being 100% true as opposed to vatious experts, insiders and specialists. Because we now live in the (mental) Middle Ages, amiright?

        “Several regional governors (I heard the number six) are going to be relieved of their positions soon.”

        [let’s save this comment]

        Aule Valar, what if in, say, 2 months timeframe nothing of the sort happens? What you gonna say then?

        “The political commenters build their analysis on inside information “

        Names, please. Who are these “political commenters” with the insider access.

        *] Mental age – not the physical one.


  8. Fifth paragraph: did you mean to write that “Russia is far FROM a kleptocracy” instead of what you did write “Russia is far MORE than a kleptocracy”. The latter being more in line with Sakwa’s ‘extreme centrism’ perhaps.


    1. I was quoting Sakwa, who on page 26 of his book writes ‘The Russian political system … is far more than a kleptocracy.’ This wording suggests that at least in part it is, but he somewhat contradicts himself in that regard by saying on page 179 rather more forcefully, ‘Russia is not a kleptocratic state.’


  9. Keep up the good work professor, “on the one hand … on the other hand … here is a judgement” is proper academic method, and is the difference between those interested in the truth and having as complete a view of a situation or question as possible and simple hacks.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. “I’ve been accused of being an extreme centrist. Or was it a centrist extremist?”

    “being committed to the basic principles and institutions of the liberal international order”

    There is no such thing. This buzzword became mainstream and all-dominating mainstream narrative only in Obama’s twilight years, and had been used primarily in the context of said “world order” becoming unraveled. Punditry and think-tankers from either side of the political spectrum, are unanimous in their born-again preaching, that “US lead liberal world order” (™) is the best thing that ever graced the soil of this sinful Earth .They also demented enough to claim, that said “world order” came into being in 1945.

    Previous epoch, the “beginning of the End” of Bush Jr. with its neocons had been much honest in this regard. It proclaimed openly – there is an American Empire, which uses or mis-uses this or that international institution as it sees fit. Now, if we are to entertain Sakwa’s claim, does Russia support the American Empire and “US lead liberal world order” (™)? “Highly unlikely”. For one, the UN was not a brainchild of the “liberal West” alone – USSR had been instrumental in its creation (maybe that’s why any red-blooded ‘Murikin has to hate this institution with passion and suspect that it wants to subjugate the world…). Second – the EU proved to be a square peg for a round (and much smaller) American made hole of the “world order”. Third – there is a universal trend in becoming tired of the “old institutions” (West dominated, natch) and ignoring them and their “authority”.

    As of right now, Russia didn’t buckle on the issue of paying its dues to the PACE (an institution of the liberal international order… in spades), passed a legislation which allows to ignore ECHR rulings if they contravene Russian laws, and, in general, demonstrating no of the “fall over backwards Kozyrev-style” slavish cargo-cultism in striving to belong to the West and its institutions. Oh, and on the other side we have US of A giving a finger to the Hague Criminal Court.

    Russia utilizes the established international order, yes. But it doesn’t mean that Russia agrees with the purely Western definition of what it means, neither that it won’t try to change it.

    “Classical modernization theory equated modernization with Westernization, and argued that being modern meant adopting Western models of liberalism and democracy.”

    Which is colossal bullshit, that could only be invented by Western liberals, suddenly in need of historical justification of their rule and a patina of legitimacy derived from it. See – Imperial Japan, Russia under Peter the Great, etc.

    “At heart, I guess, I really am a Francis Fukayama ‘End of History’ type of Western liberal after all.”

    I think nobody ever doubted it, Professor – you want all the benefits of the paramount omnipotent West ruling over the globe and no drawbacks associated with it – like pesky second- and third-worlders raising a stink or disagreeing with the ultimate benevolence of the Empire of Good. The fact, that this ideal fails to come to life, distress you and other upper-middle class Western hobbits.

    Liked by 1 person

  11. Though not directly relevant to Richard Sakwa’s book these comments from Putin are optimistic and encouraging:
    “The future of Russia does not depend on sanctions. The future of Russia depends on us and on how effective we will be in transforming our political system, on how more democratic it will be getting and on how it will manage to bring to the forefront all most sound forces of society and the creative energy of our citizens,”
    “I’ve already said that we’ve invested about 600 billion into import substitution last year. All this works effectively. We have wonderful science and education. We must support all this in the proper condition and move forward. I am certain that we will succeed in all respects, including the implementation of national projects,”


  12. If Putin is sincere about his support for Russian Orthodoxy – and even if he isn’t the perception amounts to the same thing – it suggests an attempt to preserve Russia’s spiritual tradition, which was so much under attack by the Soviet state, and unwelcome by conventional westernization, as a guiding light for its future.


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